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Family calculus: Bacon and Mawe in Proof.

Add It Up
By James Yeara

By David August, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Oct. 6

Proof is everywhere. For the past two years it has been playing in New York (currently at the Walter Kerr Theatre). From Mary-Louise Parker to Jennifer Jason Leigh to Anne Heche, the New York production has attracted high-profile actresses. A national tour of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play continues to make its way around the country. The play closed in London with a production starring Gwyneth Paltrow (rumored to be set to star in the movie version) as the 25-year-old younger daughter of a math genius-turned-madman. From Salt Lake City to South Carolina, from Seattle to Denver to Arkansas, Proof pops up in Equity theaters cashing in on the play’s friendly humor and romance.

Proof deserves the popularity, the various awards and the multiple productions. Set in the backyard and on the porch of a University of Chicago mathematician, the play presents nine scenes of multiple relationships: father-daughter, sister-sister, woman-man, sane-insane. Insanity seems to be fun to watch. With affinities to the Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind, Proof’s nine scenes move quickly and work together, seamlessly connecting whether in the present or in flashback, fluidly connecting each moment on stage with an ease that keeps the audience engaged. The frequent humor of Proof takes the edge off of what could be a syrupy sentimental tale; the play’s through line centers on whether the younger daughter will follow in her genius, but ultimately insane, father’s footsteps after being his sole caretaker for four years. Is genius hereditary? Is madness? What do children owe their parents? What do parents owe their children? What do siblings and lovers owe one another? Proof gives comforting answers. Despite the esoteric nature of the protagonist’s field of study— mathematics—Proof pleases many.

Proof begins on the 25th birthday of Catherine (Mary Bacon), the youngest daughter of Robert (Richard Mawe), a mathematical genius when he was 23, who has declined into a graphomaniac by the end of his life. The genius/madman figuratively and literally haunts Catherine. Robert’s mental illness takes benign form in the compulsive writing of 103 journals. Hal (Matthew J. Cody), Robert’s former graduate student, visits to organize the notebooks and makes startling discoveries. The next day, Catherine’s older sister Claire (Krista Hoeppner) returns from her escape to a successful life in New York and begins organizing Catherine’s life. The escapee’s guilt plays against the frustration of the sacrificer’s denial. The sisters fight, Catherine falls in love with Hal, Hal betrays her and a hidden notebook provides the key to everything.

Capital Repertory’s production features a wonderful set by Ted Simpson. The two-story wood-frame house is full of glass windows that warp the light. The faded sky-blue paint seeps weariness onto the stage from the trompe l’oeil wood clapboard walls; this is a worn house, a troubled house. The lighting design by Deborah Constantine, with its golden sunrise and overcast afternoons heavy with shadows, marks the passage of time that melds with the believability of the set. This is a house and a yard in a neighborhood of a city that has been lived in. It’s a set that legendary designer Jo Mielziner, architect of the sets for Arthur Miller’s and Tennessee Williams’ greatest plays, would recognize as one of his offspring. The naturalism of the set aids Proof’s shifting days and the rush of ideas of the characters. Without such first-rate stagecraft, Proof would wander aimlessly in the random thoughts, observations, non sequiturs, theories, questions, and minutiae of the four characters.

The performances, unfortunately, are a different matter. The performers do little beyond indicating surface feelings and thoughts; there are a lot of tics and big gestures and loud grimaces and self- conscious line readings that are a testimony to the power of the stand-and-declare school of performing. People know cues and where to stand, and they speak clearly and loudly. It’s like watching and listening to someone with carpal tunnel reading Braille aloud: You get the idea, but you’re painfully aware of the effort to get it done and feel more pity than empathy. I left feeling Proof’s attraction to actors and audiences, and imagining what Proof would yield with actors who could prove a connection with the variables of a character’s life and a mastery of the prime numbers of acting.

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